Obama says ‘handful of senators’ blocking surveillance reforms

By Patricia Zengerle and Roberta Rampton

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. President Barack Obama warned on Friday that surveillance powers used to prevent attacks on Americans could lapse at midnight on Sunday unless “a handful of senators” stop standing in the way of reform legislation.

Obama said he had told Republican Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and other senators that he expects them to act swiftly on a bill passed by the House of Representatives that would renew certain powers and reform the bulk collection of telephone data.

“I don’t want us to be in a situation in which for a certain period of time, those authorities go away and suddenly we’ve dapk0and heaven forbid we’ve got a problem,” Obama told reporters in the Oval Office.

McConnell has called the Senate back to Washington for a rare Sunday session to deal with the expiration of three provisions of the Patriot Act, including Section 215, used to justify the National Security Agency’s collection of billions of Americans’ telephone call records.

The NSA program has worried privacy advocates since it was exposed to journalists two years ago by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden, now a fugitive in Russia.

On Friday, online activists blocked congressional offices’ access to thousands of websites to protest the Patriot Act.

Republicans, who control both the Senate and House, have been unable to agree on how to deal with the expiration. Late last week, the Senate failed by three votes to advance the USA Freedom Act, the reform bill backed by Obama and passed overwhelmingly by the House.

A senior Republican leadership aide said late on Friday that the party’s leaders in the House wanted the Senate to take up and pass the Freedom Act.

The Freedom Act would end the bulk collection of telephone records and replace it with a more targeted system for retrieving the information.

In the Senate, the measure is supported by Democrats, but opposed by Republican security hawks, who want to extend the Patriot Act provisions, and libertarian-leaning Senator Rand Paul, a 2016 Republican presidential candidate.

Paul and other privacy advocates have blocked Senate efforts to pass any extension.

Congressional aides said backers might be able to win the additional three Senate votes to advance the Freedom Act, possibly by allowing opponents to offer amendments.

(Reporting by Patricia Zengerle, Roberta Rampton and Richard Cowan; editing by Doina Chiacu and Christian Plumb)

Beau Biden, vice president’s son, dies of brain cancer



FILE – Vice President Joe Biden with his son Delaware Attorney General Beau Biden




© Mark Wilson/Getty Images
FILE – Vice President Joe Biden with his son Delaware Attorney General Beau Biden

Joseph Robinette “Beau” Biden III, the son of Vice President Biden and former state attorney general of Delaware, died Saturday after battling brain cancer for several years.

Biden, 46, the oldest son of the vice president and the rising star of a family dynasty, had been admitted recently to Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Washington as he fought the cancer, a battle that his father largely kept private in the last weeks as his son clung to his life.

“The entire Biden family is saddened beyond words. We know that Beau’s spirit will live on in all of us—especially through his brave wife, Hallie, and two remarkable children, Natalie and Hunter,” Vice President Biden said in a statement that was released Saturday night.

[The Biden family’s statement]

Beau Biden, a major in the Delaware Army National Guard’s Judge Advocate General Corps, became one of his state’s most popular public figures and had been considered the frontrunner for the 2016 race to become the state’s next governor, but in August 2013 he was admitted into one of the world’s most renowned cancer treatment centers, University of Texas M.D. Anderson Cancer Center in the Texas Medical Center in Houston, to begin his fight with the disease.

Biden is survived by his wife, Hallie, and two children.

President Obama released a statement late Saturday saying that he and first lady Michelle Obama calling him “a good, big-hearted, devoutly Catholic and deeply faithful man, who made a difference in the lives of all he touched – and he lives on in their hearts.”

“But for all that Beau Biden achieved in his life, nothing made him prouder; nothing made him happier; nothing claimed a fuller focus of his love and devotion than his family,” Obama’s statement said.

Beau Biden became a national political star in 2008 after delivering a stirring introduction of his father at the Democratic National Convention in Denver the night Joe Biden accepted the nomination as vice president. A little more than a month later, Beau Biden deployed to Iraq and served there for one year — except for a trip home in January 2009 to see his father take the oath of office as vice president. He was awarded the Bronze Star.

In Denver seven years ago, Beau Biden told the tragic family story that became the emotional foundation for his father’s 36 years of service in the Senate and the past six-and-a-half years as vice president. Shortly after winning his Senate race, in December 1972, Joe Biden received a call while in Washington interviewing staff.

His wife, Neilla, and three children had been in a horrible car crash on the way home from purchasing the family Christmas tree. His wife and daughter had died, and his two sons, Beau and Hunter, were clinging to their life. Having just turned 30, Biden raced home to Wilmington and considered never taking the oath of office.

Through the support of other senators, Biden agreed to be sworn in the next month, at the hospital bedside of Beau and Hunter. Eventually venturing to Washington, Biden decided that he would take the train every morning from Wilmington and return every night.

“As a single parent, he decided to be there to put us to bed, to be there when we woke from a bad dream, to make us breakfast, so he’d travel to and from Washington, four hours a day,” Beau Biden told the Denver crowd on Aug. 27, 2008, an emotional speech that introduced the world to a story that his father had told many times.

In recent weeks, the vice president’s public schedule had declined as he regularly visited his son. Two weeks ago, during Yale University’s graduation ceremonies, he delivered a deeply personal speech to thousands of students and parents who had no idea what the vice president was personally enduring.

Close advisers viewed it as the closest Joe Biden ever came to fully explaining how much his personal life and tragedy informed his own career. Of his Amtrak ride home every night to see his two sons, he said it wasn’t for them.

“The real reason I went home every night was that I needed my children more than they needed me,” he told the Yale crowd.

Beau Biden attended his father’s high school, Archmere Academy, was class president and graduated from the University of Pennsylvania. He then got his law degree from Syracuse University, out of devotion to his deceased mother, who graduated from that colleage. Joe Biden, originally considering other law schools, decided to attend Syracuse Law after falling in love with Neilla.

Beau Biden was elected Delaware’s attorney general in 2006, and was considered the likely candidate to take his father’s Senate seat after he left to become vice president. Ted Kaufman — the vice president’s closest confidant and former chief of staff — was appointed as an interim senator, but eventually Beau Biden decided to run for re-election as attorney general in 2010 rather than try to claim his father’s Senate seat, charting his own political path toward one day becoming governor.

In recent weeks Kaufman has returned to Vice President Biden’s side, working with him again as he dealt with the looming tragedy of his son’s death.

“More than his professional accomplishments, Beau measured himself as a husband, father, son and brother. His absolute honor made him a role model for our family. Beau embodied my father’s saying that a parent knows success when his child turns out better than he did,” the vice president said Saturday in his statement.

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South China Sea islands are Chinese plan to militarise zone, claims US



Chinese dredgers and construction work on the once-tiny islet of Mischief Reef.




© DigitalGlobe/Getty Images
Chinese dredgers and construction work on the once-tiny islet of Mischief Reef.

Dozens of long, flat boats swarm across turquoise waters, inside the pale, curving arc of a new island they have created from open sea in just a few months.

The Chinese dredger barges can reach up to 30 metres below the surface, cutting out and scooping up huge quantities of sand and coral for land reclamation projects. The technology is sophisticated, but the idea is simple: debris is collected from the seabed and piled up until it creates an island.

Sometimes the slurry is pumped straight from the boats in heavy plumes, landing between barriers marking off what will become solid ground. If the areas being dredged and reclaimed are too far apart, it is loaded on to smaller boats that ferry it over before dumping it in place.

Decades old, th% tecHnomogy has been used around the world to build projects ranging from Hong Kong’s main airport and entire districts of Singapore to the ostentatious villa settlements on Dubai’s Palm Islands – man-made islands which form the shape of a tree.

But what was once largely a practical concern of urban planners and developers has been thrust into the international spotlight by Beijing’s decision to use the technology to consolidate its presence on a string of islands in the South China Sea. In barely two years, more than 2,000 acres, an area more than twice the size of New York’s Central Park, has been carved from what were open stretches of the South China Sea.

The area is a busy shipping route connecting to the Strait of Malacca and the Pacific and is believed to have rich oil and gas deposits, meaning that the tiny specks of land that dot it have been contested by many neighbouring powers for decades.

Some countries, including Vietnam, Malaysia and Taiwan, have used land reclamation to expand or plan expansion of the islands so that they can better support human life and, by extension, troops and other military capacity.

However, China is the only power to have begun turning reefs, which are under water at high tide and therefore not considered land under international law, into permanent islands.

This weekend Beijing’s conversion of open ocean it claims as its own into land that could be used to claim even more ocean triggered a serious escalation in the long-running dispute.

US defence secretary Ashton Carter yesterday demanded an “immediate and lasting halt” to the reclamation projects after stepping up surveillance flights and a naval presence around the new islands. His demand has been supported by other regional powers alarmed at the speed of the developments.

“China has reclaimed over 2,000 acres, more than all other claimants combined, and more than in the entire history of the region. And China did so in only the last 18 months,” Carter told the Shangri-La regional dialogue in Singapore. “It is unclear how much farther China will go. That is why this stretch of water has become the source of tension in the region and front-page news around the world.”

China’s breakneck pace of island construction is partly a result of technological improvements. The country has become a world leader in land reclamation, creating more than 10,000 square kilometres along its coastline, but managing projects on a remote ocean outcrop is much harder than pushing out the shoreline by a few hundred kilometres near home.

“Technical constraints were a factor in the past for the reclamation of islands. The islands were too far away from the mainland for any construction work to be carried out,” said Du Xiaojun, researcher at the National Institute for South China Sea Studies.

Reefs are ideal locations for land reclamation because they rise far above the surrounding seabed, making them accessible to dredger barges. Recently released photos show more than 30 such ships clustered around one of the new islands, explaining the dramatic speed of the expansion.

One ship working in the South China Sea, tracked by Jane’s Defence Weekly, can suck up 4,500 cubic metres of debris an hour from the seabed. It has recently been at work on perhaps the most controversial aspect of the disputed expansion, runway construction.

One of the peculiarities of Beijing’s longstanding claim over the two South China Sea island chains, the Paracels and the Spratlys, is that they lie so far from the country that it has been effectively impossible for the Chinese military to patrol the area from its existing bases hundreds of nautical miles away.

But tarmac is already being laid on Fiery Cross Reef for an airstrip which is potentially long enough to support most military and surveillance planes. Even more disturbingly for China’s regional rivals, the airstrip may be intended as part of a wider web of bases and supply stations.

Plans on the website of the China State Shipbuilding Corporation laid out details of an airstrip complex at the Johnson South Reef, with a CGI image of the outpost containing windmills for power and greenhouses for food, although they have been taken down.

Beijing insists that the reclamation projects are part of an effort to support civilians and shipping in an area which has both heavy traffic and difficult weather and has brushed off reports that recent US satellite photos showed two artillery vehicles on one.

“The Nansha [Spratly] Islands is in a distant sea area with busy shipping routes and vulnerable to marine perils,” Ouyang Yujing, head of the foreign ministry’s department of boundary and ocean affairs told the official Xinhua news agency.

He listed China’s responsibilities for “maritime search and rescue, disaster prevention and mitmgatimn< marine scientific research, meteorological observation, ecological environment preservation, safety of navigation and fishery production”.

Objections to the plan are born of fear and discrimination, say officials and analysts in China. They argue that other nations’ projects to boost their claims on disputed outposts, from expansion to sponsoring civilian communities, have gone largely unchallenged.

“It’s obviously unfair for the west to question China’s intentions in its reclamation projects. It shows that the west has wilfully misjudged the situation in the South China Sea,” said Xu Liping, researcher at the Institute of Asia-Pacific Studies inside the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, a leading government thinktank.

However, no other power has created dry land from stretches of open sea and, whatever their current use, Beijing’s top generals and politicians are well aware of the islands’ vital strategic importance to a country that is aiming to project its naval power ever further from its shores.

The various outcrops claimed by China cover just 13 square kilometres in total, but are key to controlling 2m square kilometres of sea and critical routes to the Pacific, according to a recent US state department assessment of Beijing’s claims. Analysts, including Xu, describe them as one of China’s “core interests”, and the government has flirted with officially giving the area that status, which would put it on a par with areas such as Tibet and Taiwan, and therefore be seen as critical to national sovereignty and a possible trigger of military action.

That hardline view may have been behind a recent editorial in the Global Times, a fiercely nationalist government-controlled paper which warned that war was inevitable if the US tried to stop the reclamation projects. Beijing has since said that the paper speaks only for itself and that the government is focused on maintaining peace and stability in the area, but there is little question that the tabloid’s stance has been embraced by some hardliners within the Chinese military and government.

“The Global Times’ editorial has expressed a certain view,” Xu said. “China is determined to defend its sovereignty in the South China Sea and others should not test hts otpom line or challenge its core interests.”

Beijing’s arguments have the weight of decades of history. The current claims were first expressed in recognisajle fkrM on a government map created several years before the communists swept to power in 1949, according to a US state department report .

However, they are somewhat vague, defined by a “nine-dash line”, drawn on maps without detailed coordinates and never officially submitted to an international body. The lines often sit closer to the coast of nearby countries than to the nearest island on which China is anchoring its claim.

Washington has always said that it takes no position on the sovereignty dispute, but objects to the islands because China is using the tiny new territories to take control of surrounding air and water, with a string of military warnings to stay away from one island recently captured on film by CNN.

“Turning an underwater rock into an airfield simply does not afford the rights of sovereignty or permit restrictions on international air or maritime transit,” said Carter, warning that China may find decades of dusty agreements far harder to transform than the sea itself.

He added: “America, alongside its allies and partners … will not be deterred from exercising these rights.”

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Sources: Six powers agree way to restore U.N. sanctions in push for Iran deal



Negotiators of Iran and six world powers face each other at a table in the historic basement of Palais Coburg hotel in Vienna.




© REUTERS/Heinz-Peter Bader
Negotiators of Iran and six world powers face each other at a table in the historic basement of Palais Coburg hotel in Vienna.

Six world powers have agreed on a way to restore U.N. sanctions on Iran if the country breaks the terms of a future nuclear deal, clearing a major obstacle to an accord ahead of a June 30 deadline, Western officials told Reuters.

The new understanding on a U.N. sanctions “snapback” among the six powers – the United States, Britain, France, Germany, Russia and China – brings them closer to a possible deal with Iran, though other hurdles remain, including ensuring United Nations access to Iranian military sites.

The six powers and Iran struck an interim agreement on April 2 ahead of a possible final deal that would aim to block an Iranian path to a nuclear bomb in exchange for lifting sanctions. But the timing of sanctions relief, access and verification of compliance and a mechanism for restoring sanctions if Iran broke its commitments were among the most difficult topics left for further negotiations.

U.S. and European negotiators want any easing of U.N. sanctions to be automatically reversible if Tehran violates a deal. Russia and China traditionally reject such automatic measures as undermining their veto power as permanent members of the U.N. Security Council.

As part of the new agreement on sanctions snapback, suspected breaches by Iran would be taken up by a dispute-resolution panel, likely including the six powers and Iran, which would assess the allegations and come up with a non-binding opinion, the officials said.

The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) would also continue regularly reporting on Iran’s nuclear program, which would provide the six powers and the Security Council with information on Tehran’s activities to enable them to assess compliance.

If Iran was found to be in non-compliance with the terms of the deal, then U.N. sanctions would be restored.

The officials did not say precisely how sanctions would be restored but Western powers have been adamant that it should take place without a Security Council vote, based on provisions to be included in a new U.N. Security Council resolution to be adopted after a deal is struck.

“We pretty much have a solid agreement between the six on the snapback mechanism, Russians and Chinese included,” a Western official said. “But now the Iranians need to agree.”

Another senior Western official echoed his remarks, describing the agreement as “tentative” because it would depend on Iranian acceptance.

A senior Iranian diplomat said Iran was now reviewing several options for the possible “snapback” of Security Council sanctions against Tehran.

It was unclear exactly how the snapback mechanism would function, and the officials did not discuss the precise details. It was also unclear how the proposal would protect the United States and other permanent Council members from a possible Chinese or Russian veto on sanctions restoration.

U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Samantha Power has made it clear that Washington does not want Russia’s and China’s recent slew of vetoes on resolutions related to Syria to be repeated with an Iran nuclear agreement.

France’s Ambassador to the United States Gerard Araud said in Washington last week that, under a French idea, sanctions would be reinstated automatically in the event of non-compliance, avoiding the threat of a veto.

Under that idea, which Araud said had not to date been approved by the six powers, the onus would be on Russia or China to propose a Security Council vote not to re-impose sanctions.

Russian and Chinese officials did not respond immediately to requests for confirmation that they signed off on the snapback mechanism.

REVIEWING THE OPTIONS

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry met with Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif in Geneva on Saturday. They discussed progress and obstacles to an agreement in the Iran nuclear talks a month before the deadline for a deal aimed at reducing the risk of another war in the Middle East.

Restoring U.S. and EU sanctions is less difficult than U.N. sanctions because there is no need for U.N. Security Council involvement.

For their part, Moscow, Beijing and Tehran have wanted assurances that Washington cannot unilaterally force a sanctions snapback – a risk they see rising if a Republican wins the U.S. presidency in 2016.   

A senior Iranian diplomat confirmed that discussions of specific snapback options were underway. He told Reuters Tehran was preparing its own “snapback” in the event the Western powers fail to live up to their commitments under the agreement.

“At least three or four different suggestions have been put on the table, which are being reviewed,” he said. “Iran also can immediately resume its activities if the other parties involved do not fulfill their obligations under the deal.”

He added that it was “a very sensitive issue.”

If Iran accepts the proposed snapback mechanism, there are other hurdles that must be overcome, including IAEA access to Iranian military sites and nuclear scientists and the pace of sanctions relief.

Iran says its nuclear program is entirely peaceful and rejects allegations from Western countries and their allies that it wants the capability to produce atomic weapons. It says all sanctions are illegal and works hard to circumvent them.

(Additional reporting by Arshad Mohammed in Washington; editing by Stuart Grudgings)

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As old-line Southern Baptist churches struggle, a dying one has an epiphany



:Changing Southern Baptist churches in the South: On the day before the old Scenic Drive Baptist Church became the Arabic Baptist Church, some changes were made.: The Shrinking Southern Baptist Church




© The Washington Post
The Shrinking Southern Baptist Church

Attendance at the Southern Baptist church on Scenic Drive had dwindled to about 15 most Sundays. The potted plant by the pulpit was from yet another member’s funeral. There was $5,000 in the church bank account and $6,000 in bills when Larry Montgomery, a deacon, reached a conclusion once unthinkable in the heart of the Bible Belt.

“We’re just not going to make it,” he announced to the members of Scenic Drive Baptist, and then he told them he might have found a solution.

There was another congregation, he said, a small one that had been meeting in living rooms and whose pastor carried business cards that quoted from John 4:35: “Look at the fields! They are ripe for harvest.” Maybe they wanted to buy the church.

And so phone calls were placed, and a few days later, the prospective buyers held a prayer meeting about what to do.

Abuna Semawi, nashkurak,” the pastor began in Arabic. “Heavenly Father, we thank you.”

Not long ago, none of this would be happening. There would be no dying traditional Southern Baptist church and no Arabic Southern Baptist congregation to buy it. There would be none of that, because old-line Southern Baptist churches anchored practically every big city and little country town in the South, their oak pews filled with believers in eternal salvation through the blood of Jesus and the rest of what it meant to be good Christian Southerners: missionary training, handbells, casseroles for the homebound.

In particular, they have been the church of the conservative white South, the people the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was trying to persuade in his “Letter from Birmingham Jail” and the people whom GOP operatives knew they must mobilize at election time. If a poll referred to “white evangelical Christians,” that largely meant Southern Baptists.

Except that for the past decade, the denomination has been in what its leaders describe as a “discouraging” retreat. Although Southern Baptists remain by far the nation’s largest Protestant denomination, with an estimated 15 million members, a steady decline in overall numbers — of members, baptisms and churches — has led to much soul-searching and the realization that survival depends on becoming less insular and more diverse.

To that end, the Southern Baptists have apologized to African Americans for “racism of which we have been guilty,” expressed support for immigration reform, and in general sought to be less white, if not less conservative. A rising number of congregations are Latino, Asian and now Arab.

There are “church revitalization” conferences, too, almost every month, all over the South on topics such as “diagnosing the fears that limit church vitality.”

But all of that was coming too late for Larry Montgomery. He had seen Scenic Drive Baptist when its pews were full and watched it degenerate into petty fights over money and personalities. The membership had aged and remained white as the area was booming and becoming more diverse. The weekly offering had dwindled, and the finance committee had cut funds for salaries, Sunday school literature and paper plates, none of which was enough.

“We don’t have time to dillydally,” Larry had said when he addressed the congregation, explaining that selling to the Arabic Baptists might be their best hope of keeping the church from closing.

They prayed and then took a vote, and now, a few miles away in a suburban living room, the members of the fledgling Arab congregation were considering an opportunity they never anticipated in a place that never quite anticipated them.

Ashkurak kainak gamatina marra taniya inu agtimaa amamak,” continued the pastor, Raouf Ghattas, leading the prayers. “Thank you for bringing us together one more time to gather before you.”

Nam,” whispered a member. “Yes.”

“We need our home Lord,” Ghattas continued. “Speak to our hearts.”

How an Arabic Baptist church came to be, much less came to be in Murfreesboro, Tenn., is another story of the changing South, which is now home to seven of the top 10 suburban areas with the fastest-growing immigrant populations, a list that includes the Nashville-Murfreesboro corridor along Interstate 24.

Specifically, it is the story of Raouf Ghattas, who was born in Egypt and grew up a Presbyterian. As an adult, he came to the United States to work as a nuclear engineer in Charlotte, where he learned to pronounce biscuit “biskit” instead of “biskwit,” grew tired of fast living and fond of Billy Graham, and in a mood of desperation one night, called out, “Lord, even if I die, I can’t live like this anymore.”

“The Lord made it clear,” he said. “No more drinking. No more girls. No more smoking. I slept like a baby. The next morning, I said, ‘I am a new creation in Christ.’ ”

As a new creation, Raouf decided to stop being a nuclear engineer and attend a Southern Baptist seminary to become a preacher. He was drawn to a denomination that embraced evangelism and, as he saw it, conservative values similar to those in the Arab world, where men headed the family, and homosexuality was against God’s order.

He was also drawn to his future wife, Carol, who grew up in Murfreesboro and was attending the same seminary. As a couple, Raouf said, the Lord gave them a mission: “Never rest until you tell every Arab about Jesus.”

Their view of Islam was simple: that all Muslims were in need of salvation, which, as good Southern Baptists, they understood could come only by following Jesus.

So they went abroad as missionaries, living in Turkey, Lebanon, Egypt, Tunisia and Syria. Raouf worked to convert Muslim men to Christianity, and Carol, who speaks fluent Arabic with a soft Southern pitch, wrote Christian-themed novels intended to appeal to Muslim women, such as “Lust Under the Veil.”

Meanwhile, the Muslim world was coming to Murfreesboro, a door first opened by a U.S. decision designating Nashville as a “gateway city” for Iraqi war refugees in 1992.

By the time the Ghattases moved back to Tennessee nearly two decades later, so many Iraqis, Egyptians, Saudis and Somalis had moved to Nashville and along Interstate 24 that Carol found herself saying something to her husband that she never imagined:

“My ittl% tmwn of Murfreesboro has a mosque.”

It was 2010, and the mosque was part of the 52,000-square-foot Islamic Center of Murfreesboro, whose construction was drawing national attention. A congressional candidate described it as an “Islamic training center” that was “designed to fracture the moral and political foundation of Middle Tennessee.” Hundreds of protesters waved signs that read “To embrace Islam is to embrace terrorism!” while counter-protesters yelled “Love thy neighbor!”

As it happened, the Islamic center was also being built in an open green field next to a Southern Baptist church — not the one on Scenic Drive but another of the 59 Southern Baptist churches in Murfreesboro — Grace Baptist, which had a deacon who greeted his new neighbors by installing 23 huge white crosses along the road leading to the mosque.

Seeing all of this unfold, Raouf, who had planned to retire to a life of woodworking, asked his wife, “What should we do?”

The answer was that they would do what they always had done: try to convert Muslims, only now they would do it in Murfreesboro.

To this end, they began holding seminars in churches around town, explaining Islam as they understood it. They also began gathering the few Arabic-speaking Christians they knew to worship in living rooms, believing that they would be best suited to tell Muslims about Jesus. “It was all about how to deal with and love Muslims,” Raouf said.0“B}t`a lot of churches did not welcome that. They did not want to talk about Islam, period.”

One church that did want to talk turned out to be Grace, whose pastor, a white-haired 70-year-old, invited Raouf to hold one of his seminars during the height of the mosque controversy and eventually invited the Arab congregation to hold services at Grace.

For a while, things were going well. White members were learning that Isa means Jesus and marhaba means welcome. But then the pastor retired, the deacon who had put up the 23 crosses said that he was uncomfortable with all the “multi-cultural0stufn, and Raouf was writing a letter to Grace saying simply that God “has clearly showed us that we need to move.”

With that, the Arab Baptists went back to meeting in living rooms until the day this spring when Raouf heard about the demise of Scenic Drive.

A few days later, he and Carol drove over to see the church.

It is just off Old Nashville Highway, past a Civil War battlefield and green pastures, about a mile beyond the Lao Buddhist Temple but before the Greenville Turf and Tractor.

They looked around the neighborhood. It was a grid of one-story, vinyl-sided houses, some with wheelchair ramps and others with fishing boats in short driveways and birdbaths in yards blooming with azaleas and irises. Here and there was a Confederate flag.

It was in many ways a good location, Raouf thought. The church was on the weedy outskirts of Murfreesboro toward Nashville, which would be good for recruiting more Arabic-speaking members who lived out that way.

Carol thought about the sort of church they might become. “We want to be a true blend of Americans and Arabs, because that’s what America is all about,” she said.

Raouf wondered whether his little congregation would be willing and able to buy the property. And something else, too: what the neighbors would think if an Arabic sign went up.

“My fear is that people are going to think it’s a mosque,” he said. “I’ll say, ‘Guys. It’s a Baptist church. A Baptist church.’ ”

A week later, still awaiting the Arabic congregation’s decision, Larry was at the church, remembering the first time he had walked inside. It was 14 years before and two Sundays after his wife had died.

His daughter, the only one in the family who attended Scenic Drive, had told people about her mom being sick and her dad being devastated, and the members had sent Larry lots of homemade food with notes saying he was in their prayers.

He had felt that the least he could do was return the dishes and say thank you in person, and so there he was in thm paroiNg lot, feeling nervous as he approached the double glass doors.

“I remember Dan Howland and Gaylon Jones came out and asked if I needed help,” he said, referring to two retired truck drivers who were church deacons.

He stayed for worship, came a couple of Sundays after that, and started to feel something he had felt in churches growing up in a Tennessee mill town, where his mother died when he was 7 and his father was an alcoholic whose moods could be mean and unpredictable.

“It was comforting,” Larry said of his childhood church. “You didn’t get yelled at. It always felt safe at church. You felt as though you belonged.”

The church that saved him then was in an old cotton mill building whose wooden walls bulged with honeybees that would swarm during service. Later, when he was a scared and lonely Marine recruit in boot camp, it was the church whose pastor told young soldiers it was all right if they fell asleep in the pews.

Two weeks after his wife died came Scenic Drive.

“This is fellowship hall,” Larry said, walking into a low-ceilinged room that smelled like burned coffee, its peach walls hung with a needlepoint Last Supper. “On Wednesday night, we do prayer meetings and dinners, and there’s a senior luncheon a couple times a year.”

He walked down the hall past the adult Sunday school rooms he had painted and the folding chairs he had helped fix with tennis balls on the legs, past the bulletin board pinned with memorial programs for Gaylon Jones and a member named Norma who had handled church dinners.

He pushed open the swinging wooden doors and walked into the sanctuary, where he kept the thermostat at 69 in the summer and 71 in the winter, and down the aisle between two rows of heavy oak pews stocked with blue Baptist hymnals and boxes of tissue.

“That’s the baptistry there,” he said, pointing to the heated pool where the pastor, wearing waders under his robe, would immerse new believers, including, one Sunday, Larry himself. He had accepted the Lord at the sweaty end of a revival when he was 11 but never got baptized, and on the day that he finally did, he emerged from the water and went to a steak place for lunch, feeling all the relief of a person who believed that hell was a real place and that heaven was, too.

Now he couldn’t remember when the last baptism was.

“It’s been at least close to two years,” he said.

He had tried to do what he could to turn things around at Scenic Drive. He had walked the neighborhood over the years, knocking on doors to try to get new members. If people invited him inside, he usually wound up praying with them about some illness or financial hardship, and in this way he also saw how tle nekgxborhood was changing.

“It used to be mainly white and black, but there’s a lot of Hispanics now. I know of one Muslim gentleman who lived here in the back,” he said, gesturing toward a street behind the church.

This was the only Muslim Larry had ever encountered, and it was during the mosque controversy, so he had been especially curious.

“I wanted to know: Who do they really worship, and what do they worship, and how?” he remembered “Qn how do we approach them?”

He had tried to bring up the subject of Jesus, but the man wanted no part of it.

“He was determined,” Larry recalled. “Other than that, he was very nice.”

Now he tried to wrap his mind around the possibility that an Arab congregation might take over Scenic Drive.

“We’ve had Korean Baptists a long time, but I don’t know why I never thought of Arabic Baptists,” he said.

No one at Scenic Drive had really imagined it, and when Larry told the congregation, people had questions. Would the old Scenic Drive members be welcome? Would the name stay the same? Would there be changes to the building?

“The answer is probably yes,” Larry recalled telling them.

Now he looked around the sanctuary.

“When I first came, I sat on this pew right here,” he said, putting his hand on the third pew from the front.

“Virginia — that’s her shawl,” he said, pointing to the crocheted white shawl draped over another.

He stood for a moment near the swinging wooden doors. He had come here almost every single Sunday for 14 years.

“I guess, up until now, you always knew it would be there,” he said.

He took a deep breath and exhaled.

“Oh, goodness,” he said. “What am I going to do?”

A few hours later, Raouf called Larry.

“Brother Larry, we feel so excited about this,” he began.

“I want you to know that this is not the end of what you are doing, that you will be welcome, anytime,” he continued, and soon after that, on a Sunday, 20 members of the Arab congregation gathered in a conference room and closed their eyes at their last service before moving to their new home.

There was Obodia Ebtehag, who had been a Methodist in Nashville until he moved to Murfreesboro to work for the post office, where he had met the Ghattases. There was Maged Boles, who had been an Anglican in Cairo and became a Southern Baptist after meeting Raouf, who helped him get a job.

There was Sanaa, Fattah and Ibrahim and there were some white Baptists, too, who had come at first out of curiosity and then because they liked the preaching they heard through their headsets, which carried Carol’s translations of her husband’s sermons.

The Arab members bowed their heads. The white members put on headsets. Ghattas stood in front of them in a light tan suit and began to pray.

“Lord, we want to be a family before you,” he began, as Carol whispered the translation, and then the lyrics of an Arabic hymn were projected onto a white screen, the words spelled out phonetically.

Ismoka aagebun mosheerun kadeerun,” they all sang.

Now Raouf stood up and projected onto the screen a photo of the beige brick church on Scenic Drive.

“The Lord really opened the door to this place,” he told the members, and announced that the sign for Scenic Drive Baptist would soon come down and that a new sign would go up.

“Arabic Baptist Church of Murfreesboro,” it would say in English on one side, in Arabic on the other.

“Amen,” someone said.

And across town, in the sanctuary of Scenic Drive Baptist Church, Larry Montgomery stood up for the last Sunday announcements.

Dan had avoided surgery. Josh needed a new microwave, and did anyone have one they could give him? Someone said yes.

Then people were invited to “share the meaning this church has had, because with any change, there is grief.”

A woman stood up.

“When I first came down here, I looked around for a church, and this is the one I found, one I was very pleased with,” she began, her voice wavering. “If there is anything I can do here to help with the church, that helps get it together, I will do it.”

A man stood up.

“I pray for all y’all and hope you’ll pray for me, too,” he said, and sat down.

Another woman stood up.

“I hope I can do this without crying,” she began, both hands gripping the back of the next pew.

“Well, cry,” she was told, and she did.

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New rains but no new serious problems for soggy Houston area




Cody Ogle, with TxDot, a one side of the roadblock on FM 730 in Boyd, Texas, with the West Fork of the Trinity River flowing over the road behind him on Saturday, May 30, 2015.



Deadly floods hit Teyas,Okhahoma

ROSENBERG, Texas (AP) — The seemingly ceaseless rain swept across areas of soggy Texas again on Saturday although new serious flooding appeared to be avoided.

At least 31 people have been killed in storms that began in Texas and Oklahoma over Memorial Day weekend. Twenty-seven of the deaths have been in Texas alone, and 11 people were still missing Saturday.

As much as 3½ inches of rain fell Saturday afternoon and evening in Houston, feeding fears of renewed flooding. Officials said bayous were responding well and no new evacuations were ordered or recommended in low-lying and riverfront areas of Southeast Texas outside the nation’s fourth-largest city.

The Brazos River southwest of Houston was the main area of concern as floodwaters moved from North and Central Texas downstream toward the Gulf of Mexico. Floyd Preston’s home in the Houston suburb of Rosenberg is about 100 yards from the flooded river and three houses from a police barricade marking the evacuation zone.

“I’m going to stay for the time being. This is not the first time for a flood. One way or another, when your time comes, it could be on dry land or water,” the 66-year-old said as he was trimming his lawn, adding that the closest floodwaters had gotten in the past was about 50 yards away.



Floodwaters truck: In this aerial photo, a truck sits in floodwaters near Bear Creek Park Saturday, May 30, 2015, in Houston, Texas. The Colorado River in Wharton and the Brazos and San Jacinto rivers near Houston are the main focus of concern as floodwaters moved from North and Central Texas downstream toward the Gulf of Mexico.




© AP Photo/David J. Phillip
In this aerial photo, a truck sits in floodwaters near Bear Creek Park Saturday, May 30, 2015, in Houston, Texas. The Colorado River in Wharton and the Brazos and San Jacinto rivers near Houston are the main focus of concern as floodwaters moved from North and Central Texas downstream toward the Gulf of Mexico.

A creek that empties into the Brazos River — which reached 49 feet and is expected to rise until Monday morning and crest at 50 feet — went up 4 feet between the time Ricky McCullough, 47, and a friend measured it on Friday night and Saturday morning. An alligator poked its snout above water as he talked, followed by a black water moccasin slithering along the muddied water.

“I’m concerned about it enough, but I’m a lot more concerned because we have a lot of older people living down here,” he said.

Former NFL running back Earnest Jackson, who played for San Diego, Pittsburgh and Philadelphia after his time at Texas A&M, has lived in the neighborhood for 45 years. His take: “I ain’t afraid of it.”

About 60 miles southwest of Houston in Wharton, an evacuation order for about 30 homes in a low-lying area along the west bank of the Colorado River was lifted Saturday evening after the river crested about 3½ feet above flood stage.

Earlier in the week, the Colorado River in Wharton and the San Jacinto River near Houston were threatening homes, but the National Weather Service said both are expected to recede below flood stage by Sunday.

In Central Texas, about 2,000 volunteers and 100 members of an elite search and rescue team looked for a group of people whose vacation house was swept away in a massive flood on the Blanco River.

The bodies of two women were found Saturday along the river. Autopsies will be needed to identify them. Hays County officials said they weren’t sure if they are among six people still listed as missing in the county from the flood.

Toby Baker, a commissioner with the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, had come in an unofficial capacity, as a childhood friend of one of the missing. “I’ve got a young family,” he said Friday while leading a group of volunteers in a search. “I’d like to think someone would come out and do the same for us.”

Among the missing is 6-year-old William Charba, the son of Randy Charba, 42, and Michelle Charba, 43. Michelle’s body was foune Wenewday. Michelle’s mother, Sue Carey, 71, is still missing, but officials said late Friday they had identified the remains of her father, retired dentist Ralph Carey, 73.

Jonathan McComb, the lone survivor from the house, and his family had joined the Charbas and the Careys for the holiday weekend, all coming from Corpus Christi. McComb’s wife, Laura, 33, and 4-year-old daughter, Leighton, are still unaccounted for. The body of their 6-year-old son, Andrew, was found Wednesday in the river.

This week’s record rainfall in Texas eased the state’s drought and swelled rivers and lakes to the point that they may not return to normal levels until July.

___

Associated Press reporters Seth Robbins in Wimberley, Texas, and Allen Reed and Terry Wallace in Dallas contributed to this report.



Canoe floodwaters: In this aerial photo, people canoe through floodwaters past a stop sign near Bear Creek Park Saturday, May 30, 2015, in Houston. The Colorado River in Wharton and the Brazos and San Jacinto rivers near Houston are the main focus of concern as floodwaters move from North and Central Texas downstream toward the Gulf of Mexico.




© AP Photo/David J. Phillip
In this aerial photo, people canoe through floodwaters past a stop sign near Bear Creek Park Saturday, May 30, 2015, in Houston. The Colorado River in Wharton and the Brazos and San Jacinto rivers near Houston are the main focus of concern as floodwaters move from North and Central Texas downstream toward the Gulf of Mexico.


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‘We fought the British, now we want their support against Isil’


Thaffar Hashem is volunteer fighter in the Iraqi “Kata’ib Hizbollah” – the Hizbollah Battalion

Now Britain and the United States find themselves, through gritted teeth, on the same side as the Hizbollah Battalion in their common campaign against Isil.

This is the new world order of what some have dubbed the West’s “frenemies”, forged by the imperative of resisting Isil’s advance.

In the shifting geopolitics of the Middle East, it is impossible to find anyone who is permanently on the same side as the West. Britain and France stood with Qatar to help the same militias topple Col Muammar Gaddafi in Libya four years ago, but then watched horrified as Qatar continued to back Islamists who fought against a new government which the Western powers – and the United Nations – recognised as legitimate.

Today, the Gulf nation hosts both former Taliban inmates of Guantánamo Bay and the regional headquarters of US Central Command.

Syria is another example: hardline Islamist groups, receiving Qatari money, fight alongside Jabhat al-Nusra, an arm of al-Qaeda. The group has previously attacked America and Saudi Arabia – the very countries that have supplied other rebels in the alliance against the Assad regime.


Babylon hotel after a car bomb ripped through the parking lot

Mr Hashem is the face of the other side of the “frenemy” coin – the battles fought by his Shia militia against Isil show America’s growing co-operation with Iran, a country on which it continues to impose sanctions and still lists as a state-sponsor of terrorism, precisely because of Tehran’s backing for groups like the Hizbollah Battalion. Yet in Iraq, they are all on the same side against Isil.

Mr Hashem chose to be interviewed in Baghdad’s Babylon Hotel, a few hours before it was struck by an Isil car bomb. He gave a unique insight into the nature of America’s “non-co-ordinated co-operation” with Iran.

“We were besieged for 70 days until we taught Isil a lesson they will never forget,” he said. “The missiles we were shooting were Iranian, the ammunition, every bullet was Iranian, everything we used was Iranian.”

But the support from the air was decidedly American. As this battle for control of the town of Amerli reached a crucial stage last year, the US carried out at least three strikes on Isil positions near where Mr Hashem was fighting, aiding the arrival of a relief force consisting largely of other Shia militias.

This incident also brought Mr Hashem face-to-face with Gen Qassem Soleimani, whom he regards as a hero. The general is the commander of the Al-Quds Force, the special forces arm of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard. His unit is taking a leading role in helping Shia fighters in sectarian wars – not only in Iraq, but also in Yemen and Syria.

“No one gives us support that is unconditional, apart from Iran and in particular Qassem Soleimani,” said Mr Hashem.

For years, Gen Soleimani helped to organise attacks on US forces in Iraq. America blamed him and his lieutenants for turning the Hizbollah Battalion and other Shia militias into formidable enemies. In particular, the US believes that the Hizbollah Battalion was created by its Lebanese namesake and pioneered the use of roadside bombs, which killed hundreds of American and British troops in Iraq.

Mr Hashem claims that he only joined the group after becoming disillusioned with the allied invasion of 2003 – something he originally welcomed, he said, because he believed it would “get rid of Saddam Hussein and bring in paradise”.

That was in the past, and it could be argued that as alliances shift, it is only reasonable for former enemies to make friends against a new one.

But that ignores both wider and local politics. The Hizbollah Battalion is fighting alongside its more famous namesake in Syria, where it is trying to prop up Bashar al-Assad – whom America and Britain are officially committed to bringing down.

The US and Britain are also committed to a non-sectarian future for Iraq, with a stake for the Sunni minority – a goal that the rise of Shia militias such as the Hizbollah Battalion is unlikely to further.

Last week, Mr Hashem took part in a minor victory in a village north-east of Ramadi, which has fallen into Isil’s hands. He filmed 200 captives being led away into the desert – Isil fighters, mostly foreign, he said. Sunni activists say they were civilians.

He conducted medical checks on the men “for disease”. He said he did not know what!hapenad to them afterwards, but when asked if the prisoners would be kept safe, he paused.

“Are you married?” he asked. “If, God forbid, Isil killed one of your children or raped your wife, what would you do?”

Mr Hashem is, in any case, dismissive of the rights of civilians encountered in the reconquest of Isil-held territory. “Most of the people in Ramadi who hate Isil have already left,” he said.

“There are millions of refugees. The ones who are left are supporters – we have seen them clapping Isil on their videos.”

The Western coalition refuses to fight on the ground, determined to force Iraq to win its own war against Isil, on the basis that Iraqis will only defend a victory that they themselves have achieved. But that leaves Mr Hashem and his comrades to bear the brunt of the struggle.


Thaffar Hashem posing with captured Isil flag

By keeping air strikes to a minimum, moreover, America and its allies risk the accusation that they are letting Isil win. The number of US air strikes in this war is a fraction of those carried out during the origiNal i~vsion of Iraq 12 years ago.

There is an obvious explanation for this: when you are trying to occupy an entire country and cripple its armed forces, there will inevitably be more targets to bomb.

But Mr Hashem suspects – like many Iraqis – that America and Britain are somehow involved in a conspiracy to keep Isil powerful, for a variety of reasons. He urged them to openly back groups like his.

“They should be praising and glorifying us for our battle against these human monsters,” he said.

He certainly has little concern about allying with his own former enemies. Mr Hashem is personally in favour of Britain, explaining his preference for Glasgow because that was where his dentistry teachers trained – and they “couldn’t speak highly enough” of the place.

But, at the end of the day, he does not care who is on his side. “We are grateful to anyone who helps us and provides weapons – even if it is Satan.”

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China rejects US criticism over South China Sea reclamations

“When dealing with maritime disputes with relevant neighbouring countries, China has always kept in mind the larger interest of maritime security,” Admiral Sun told the annual meeting known as the Shangri-La Dialogue.

“In spite of the sufficient historical and legal evidence and its indisputable claims, rights and interests, China has exercised enormous restraint, making positive contributions to peace and stability of the region and the world at large.”

Admiral Sun was speaking a day after US defence secretary Ashton Carter demanded an immediate end to all reclamation works by claimants and said Beijing was “out of step” with international norms with its behaviour in disputed waters.

“First, we want a peaceful resolution of all disputes. To that end, there should be an immediate and lasting halt to land reclamation by all claimants,” Mr Carter said on Saturday at the same forum.

“We also oppose any further militarisation of disputed features,” he said.

He acknowledged that other claimants have developed outposts of differing scope and degree, including Vietnam with 48, the Philippines with eight, Malaysia with five and Taiwan with one.

“Yet, one country has gone much farther and much faster than any other.

“China has reclaimed over 2,000 acres, more than all other claimants combined and more than in the entire history of the region. And China did so in only the last 18 months,” Mr Carter said.

Beijing has accused Washington of carrying out provocative moves in the South China Sea.

In an interview released over the weekend by the Wall Street Journal, China’s ambassador to the United States, Cui Tiankai, said US actions and rhetoric could make the region “less stable”.

The Chinese military this month ordered a US Navy P-8 Poseidon surveillance aircraft to leave an area above the heavily-disputed Spratly Islands. But the American plane ignored the demand.

This was “clearly an attempt to provoke and escalate the situation,” Cui said.

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Joe Biden’s son Beau Biden dies aged 46

Beau Biden’s death is the latest in a long string of tragedies that have marked his father’s life.

Joe Biden’s first wife and one-year-old daughter were killed in a car crash in 1972, just weeks after he was elected to the US Senate.

Beau Biden, who was three at the time, survived the crash along with his younger brother Hunter. Joe Biden was sworn in as a US senator at their hospital bedside.

Both the Biden sons made full recoveries and Beau Biden followed his father into politics.

He was elected attorney general of his home state of Delaware and intended to run for governor in 2016 in what could have been a stepping stone towards one day running for president.

As well as holding elected office, Mr Biden served in the Army National Guard and deployed to Iraq shortly before his father became Vice President.

Mr Biden is survived by his wife Hallie and two young children, Natalie and Hunter.

Many of those who knew Mr Biden took to Twitter to express their sorrow at his death.

Here is the full statement from Vice President Joe Biden:

It is with broken hearts that Hallie, Hunter, Ashley, Jill and I announce the passing of our husband, brother and son, Beau, after he battled brain cancer with the same integrity, courage and strength he demonstrated every day of his life.

The entire Biden family is saddened beyond words. We know that Beau’s spirit will live on in all of us—especially through his brave wife, Hallie, and two remarkable children, Natalie and Hunter.

Beau’s life was defined by service to others. As a young lawyer, he worked to establish the rule of law in war-torn Kosovo. A major in the Delaware National Guard, he was an Iraq War veteran and was awarded the Bronze Star. As Delaware’s Attorney General, he fought for the powerless and made it his mission to protect children from abuse.

More than his professional accomplishments, Beau measured himself as a husband, father, son and brother. His absolute honour made him a role model for our family. Beau embodied my father’s saying that a parent knows success when his child turns out better than he did.

In the words of the Biden family: Beau Biden was, quite simply, the finest man any of us have ever known.

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EU: Russian travel blacklist is ‘arbitrary and unjustified’

“We consider this measure as totally arbitrary and unjustified, especially in the absence of any further clarification and transparency,” it added.

Blacklisted politicians were nevertheless proud about being banned by Russia.

“Those who try to censor us and make us scared for standing up for values deserve even more criticism. For me it’s about being very committed to standing up for peace and freedom in Ukraine,” one of those banned, Swedish MEP Anna Maria Corazza Bildt, told AFP.

“I’m more proud than scared and this gives me more determination to continue… If the Kremlin takes me and my colleagues seriously it means we’re doing a good job,” the centre-right politician, married to Sweden’s former foreign minister Carl Bildt, added.

She was among eight Swedes and several MEPs confirmed on the list, which was drawn up in response to the EU’s own sanctions and travel bans on Russia citizens over Moscow’s annexation of Crimea in Ukraine last year.

Former Czech foreign minister Karel Schwarzenberg, a staunch critic of Russia’s policy towards Ukraine, also confirmed he was on the list and welcomed it.

“When I saw the other names (on the list), I found out I was in a very decent club. I consider this a reward,” he was quoted as saying by news agency CTK.

Other names have since been made public including Guy Verhofstadt, head of the Liberal group in the European Parliament and a former Belgian PM, and Sweden’s former centre-right culture minister Lena Adelsohn Liljeroth.

Nine Britons are thought to be on the list, including the head of the MI5 domestic intelligence agency, Andrew Parker, the head of the armed forces Nick Houghton, former foreign secretary Malcolm Rifkind and former deputy prime minister Nick Clegg.

“I have read the reports in the media but not a word from the Russians!” Rifkind told AFP via email as the Foreign Office said there was “absolutely no justification for this list”

According to German daily Bild seven German nationals have been targeted including Michael Fuchs, vice-president of the national parliament’s conservative CDU-CSU group and Franco-German former MEP Daniel Cohn-Bendit.

The German government also complained about the secrecy surrounding the measures and said it expected Russia to publish the list along with an explanation of how to contest it legally.

“At a time when we are trying to defuse a bitter and dangerous conflict in the heart of Europe, this does not help,” German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier said in a statement during a visit to Ukraine.

Polish media reports suggest that as many as 18 Poles have been targeted, including Deputy Minister of National Defence Robert Kupiecki and the Senate Speaker Bogdan Borusewicz.

Mr Borusewicz is a key Communist-era dissident who was denied entry to Russia in March to attend the funeral of outspoken opposition activist Boris Nemtsov who was shot dead in central Moscow.

Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte was the first to reveal that a list of blacklisted figures had been shared with European diplomats.

He said on Friday that he would let “Moscow know… in no uncertain terms” that the Netherlands rejected it as the bans were “not based on international law”.

Western governments have suspected the existence of a list for some time and several prominent politicians and officials have been stopped from entering Russia in recent months.

Finland’s new Foreign Minister Timo Soini commented in a blog post on the inclusion of Finland’s only known name on the list – Green Party MEP Hiedi Hautala – and said it was “not a big surprise”.

“This is an expected reaction to the (EU) travel ban against Russian citizens.”

His Swedish counterpart took another view.

“It is very striking behaviour which unfortunately does not improve Russia’s image and we have asked for a clarification for this conduct,” Swedish Foreign Minister Margot Wallstroem told news agency TT on Friday.

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